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The raised coffin-like ossuaries of the Benuaq Dayak of East Kalimantan.


The Benuaq Dayak referred to in this Research Note inhabit four main longhouse communities along the Ohong River (Ohookng in their language), Mancong, Muara Nayan, Lempunah, and Pentat, in Kecamatan (district) Jempang, Kutai Barat, East Kalimantan. (1)

After a kwangkai secondary funerary (Zahorka 2013), wealthy families in these communities traditionally preserved the bones of their deceased in wooden coffin-like containers raised on either one or two tall posts. Structures raised on one post are called tempelaaq (also tempelaq) and on two posts, kelerekng. These containers, which usually hold the remains of more than one family member, are generally elaborately carved and are often colorfully painted. A mythical naga serpent is usually carved on the top of each container. The structures themselves are erected in a cemetery area located close to each longhouse.

The carved motifs depicted on these sarcophagi represent mythological figures, protecting spirits, terrifying figures meant to scare away malevolent ghosts, floral motives, the tree of life, and scenes of daily life including the erotic.

Neglect of the sarcophagi after the kwangkai ritual

The Benuaq do not worship their ancestors, although during the kwangkai funerary rituals the officiating sentangih recall the spirits of the ancestral dead to this world. This is because at the end of the elaborate kwangkai feast the two different souls of the deceased join the souls of the ancestors in two different heavens. The final destination of the soul of the vital, biological life of the body, called liau, is a mythical longhouse called loou mbaq on saikng lumut (Moss Mountain) in Central Kalimantan, whereas the soul of the mind, intellect and mental ability, called kelelungan, is guided by the nyahuq bird spirits to a longhouse called tenangkai solai in the seventh level of heaven which is the abode of the powerful naynq spirits (Zahorka 2013: 203, 217). Tenangkai means 'longhouse' in the kwangkai language used by the sentangih ritual experts during these funerary rituals and solai means 'big.'

These wooden constructions receive no maintenance. As a result, after a few decades, they are destroyed by termites, other insects and fungi and so the next generation can no longer use them. Therefore, most of the constructions described in this Note no longer exist. An exception occurs in the case of elite families that can afford to have sarcophagi made of ironwood. A renaissance in this tradition occurred in 2009 when a huge ironwood kelerekng was constructed for the late Kepala Adat Bakot and his family at the Lempunah longhouse. In 1978 Bakot became the author's adopted father.

Tempelaaq ossuaries and their ornamentation




Construction and ornamentation of the more common kelerekng ossuaries

Kelerekng sarcophagi rest on two solid poles. This makes them more stable and durable. They also stand over two meters high. This type of ossuarium was the most common at all the Benuaq settlements.



During the last decades many families have preferred to construct house-shaped mortuary chambers, beleh tolaakng lenokng, that store the bones and skulls of the deceased. The mandatory naga on the top now occupies the roof ridge.


To avoid the great expense of a complete kwangkai feast, during recent decades many families have performed a mostly one-day to three-day beroah ritual, in which actions performed during a kwangkai are simplified. Beroah ends with a simple secondary interment of the bones in the cemetery.

My adoptive father, Kepala Adat Bakot from Lempunah longhouse, died in 2004 at the age of nearly one hundred. His wife Yonen departed some years earlier. A four-week kwangkai was mandatory for such a prominent personality as Bakot. To revive the old traditions, 1 encouraged his son-in-law, Anatolius Teng, to construct an ironwood kelerekng. The ironwood tree, (Eusideroxyionzwageri), in Benuaq is teluyatn, colloquially also belian, but the wood is called ulin. This wood is extremely hard and resistant to termites, other insects and fungus. Preparations for the feast lasted three years. With joint contributions, the largest ironwood kelerekng ever built was erected at Lempunah. It was built at a cost of 13 million Rp. (then US$ 1,350). The concrete foundation and the roof required an additional 4 million Rp. (US$ 420). The great kwangkai ritual then started in February 2009.1 was present.


The small colorfully painted house on the ground is the selimat. During the ritual in the longhouse it temporally housed the wrapped coconuts which represented the kelelungan merwaaq skulls taken during headhunting. Now the selimat is empty. Left of it is another colorfully painted object. This is a miniature roof-ridge naga and is not fixed to the ground. The tall tail on the left is visible, but the head on the right is partly covered. It is the substitute for a naga upon the tiled roof because, for technical reasons, a naga could not be placed there. (2)

The sarcophagus is covered on both sides with artistically carved scenes from myths, symbols of protective spirits, and pembeliatn (shamans), who preserve sacred heirlooms.


On the left side is a huge naga with a little leg and a bundle of sticks in its opened mouth. These are sepatukng silih or spittle sticks. They represent the wook, nameless ordinary spirits that can cause disease. To get rid of a disease during a shamanic curing ritual the patient spits or smears his or her saliva on the sticks (Zahorka 2007: 140ff). Here the naga obviously inactivates the malevolent wook by taking these sticks into its mouth.

On the right side between floral ornaments is a small fish. This is the symbolic representation of the protective water spirit, juata, often also shown as a crocodile. All these protective spirits can also cause illness if somebody disobeys the rules of adat.



All photographs by Herwig Zahorka

Literature Cited

Dietrich, S. und Pavaloi, M., eds.

2013 Flussaufwarts--Die Borneo-Sammlung Hilde May. Heidelberg: Volkerkundemuseum Heidelberg.

Stichting sonsbeek art & design

2000 Koppensnellers & Houtsnijders. Arnheim: Sonsbeek Art & Design.

Zahorka, H.

2007 The Shamanic Belian Sentiu Rituals of the Benuaq Ohookng, With Special Attention to the Ritual Use of Plants. Borneo Research Bulletin 38: 127-147.

2011 Sepatukng Belontakng Statues of the Benuaq Ohookng Dayak and Some Protective Spirits Depicted on Them. Borneo Research Bulletin 42: 196-205.

2013 Kwangkai: The Secondary Funerary Rituals of the Benuaq Ohookng Dayaks, East Kalimantan. A Journey of Souls Ending in Two Different Heavens. Borneo Research Bulletin 44: 193-227.

Herwig Zahorka

(1) The information contained in this Note comes from eight visits to the area between 1976 and 2013.

(2) In the magnificent book, Flussaufwarts, published in 2013 by Volkerkundemuseum Heidelberg, on page 78 is a photograph of this kelerekng, "photo H. u. B. May." The caption reads (translated from German): "On the floor below the sarcophagus is a modern concrete grave with a painted structure of a snake dragon." This is incorrect. There is no concrete grave here. It is the miniature substitute naga for the tiled roof of the big construction.
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH NOTES
Author:Zahorka, Herwig
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9MALA
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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